Friday, August 19, 2011

Baker on Bullinger and the Covenant

No serious study of Bullinger and the covenant can be made without seriously considering the work of J. Wayne Baker. His major work is Heinrich Bullinger and the Covenant : The Other Reformed Tradition. After criticism by Dowey, Muller, Archilla and others of his major thesis that the covenant is the central underlying theme of Bullinger’s writings Baker followed up with “Heinrich Bullinger, the Covenant, and the Reformed Tradition in Retrospect”, Sixteenth Century Journal, vol 29 (no2, 1998), pp359-376. There is no doubt that Baker is one of few scholars that have read and studied a wide breadth of Bullinger’s works. This is clearly evident form the extensive footnotes in the Sixteenth Century Journal article.

To my knowledge, no one has yet done a detailed analysis of Baker’s work bearing in mind the extensive number of Bullinger’s works he cites. Baker is often cited in the literature but there is rarely an examination of Bullinger’as actual works to evaluate if Baker’s conclusions are accurate or not.

There is no doubt that Baker’s works are stimulating reading. Here is a quote concerning Bullinger and the Anabaptists from Baker’s book published in 1980:

“This, the preservation of the unity of the covenant, was exactly Bullinger’s point when he defended the authority of the Old Testament against the Anabaptists. Christ has not abolished the moral law but only the ceremonies, which He had fulfilled. Although he had thus freed from the Christian from the condemnation of the law, the moral law remained as the holy and correct guide for living and civil society. The Old Testament still had great authority in the church because New Testament Christians were one with the old people of God. ‘These are truly one people of God, in one church and communion, in one covenant or testament; and they have one and the same redemption and salvation, one and the same teaching, one faith, one spirit, one hope, one inheritance, one calling and equivalent sacraments.’ The Anabaptists, however, rejected that whole concept of covenant unity, arguing that Christ made a new covenant of faith. Their rejection of infant baptism rested on their insistence of this new covenant and thus stemmed from their rejection of the Old Testament.

When Bullinger treated infant baptism he again dealt with the covenant. Baptism was a sign of the people of God, a covenant sign equivalent to the circumcision of the Old Testament. The covenant made with Abraham was an eternal covenant, and the Anabaptist contention that Christ had established a new covenant, abolishing the old was erroneous. God’s promise that he would be the God of Abraham and his children remained firm after Christ. Since children had been included in the sign of the covenant in the Old Testament, they also were included in baptism, for God would not be less merciful in the New Testament period than He had been in the Old. The covenant was sometimes called ‘new’ because it had been renewed and confirmed by Christ and because the heathen were now included. Bullinger made several arguments from the New Testament to demonstrate that children were still included in the covenant. Christ said that little children were in the kingdom of God (Mark 10:14), and He referred to children having faith (Matthew 18:6). With regard to the latter, Bullinger explained that the Scripture spoke of faith and the faithful in two ways. First, there were those who heard the word of God and believed; this did not refer to children. But the Scripture also referred to the faithful, which did include children, because ‘they are counted and reckoned among the faithful out of the free grace of God, who has included the children in the covenant.’ Therefore, Christ could not have excluded children from the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20). Furthermore, Paul clearly taught that baptism was the new sacrament of the covenant, replacing circumcision (Colossians 2:11-2), and he himself baptized entire households (1 Corinthians 1:16; Acts 16:33), which must have included children. Baptism was thus ‘a sign of the people of God and the seal of the covenant.’’

This is a helpful summary by Baker of Bullinger’s thoughts. But I believe Baker errs when he argues that Bulligner developed his understanding of the covenant partly to counteract the Anabaptists. Bullinger was first and foremost a biblical theologian and the covenant is an integral underlying theme of the canon.

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